The failure of Army doctrine


This essay of mine was published last week by, a military/LE-centered web site. It’ll probably only appeal to military people, especially those who have served during the War on Terror. It has been slighty edited to correct a few minor errors.

“All this nonsense about roadside bombs is ridiculous. Those bombs are easy to beat. We’ve known how to handle them since World War Two.”

A man said this to me as we stood in line at a restaurant. I had never met him before. We had started a friendly conversation a minute earlier, and he asked me about my short hair and paracord bracelet. I had told him I was an Iraq vet. He then expressed his disgust at our inability to win the war, and dismissed the problems we were having with IEDs.

I spent almost all of 2005 on a convoy escort team in Iraq, and had just returned home a few months earlier. I understood the IED threat pretty well. And I didn’t have a clue what simple, obvious solution to IEDs he was talking about.

I gave him a puzzled look and said, “I don’t know what you’re getting at. How should we handle roadside bombs?”

The man rolled his eyes in exasperation, then spoke to me like I was a child with language comprehension problems.

Flail tanks. Come on, how do you guys not know that? It’s easy, just send flail tanks down the roads.”

I sighed, closed my eyes for a moment. Flail tanks were last used in the 40’s. They had big spinning drums with heavy chains attached, and would drive through minefields setting off mines with chains. They wouldn’t work in Iraq. I calmly explained that IEDs usually aren’t land mines, and beating them with chains wouldn’t set them off. I told him that chains would tear up roads and give insurgents more places to emplace IEDs. I explained that if the solution was so obvious, the guys actually in country worrying about getting killed by IEDs would figure it out.

The man deflated, and went back to waiting in line. He didn’t say anything else.

So some civilians have an unrealistic view of the war. No surprise there. Unfortunately, that unrealistic view of the war doesn’t stay in the civilian world. Almost twelve years since our soldiers fired their first shots of the War on Terror, I’ve seen almost the same level of battlefield ignorance in the military. And most of it has been created by mindless adherence to training doctrine, which can be as blind to reality as the man in the restaurant.

When my unit was training for Afghanistan in early 2009, many of our instructors assumed we were going to Iraq. “In Iraq you have to do this. In Iraq make sure you don’t do this other thing.” When we told them we were going to Afghanistan, the almost universal response was, “Oh. . .it’s the same thing.”

No, it wasn’t. The terrain in Afghanistan was incredibly difficult compared to Iraq’s deserts, the enemy was much more aggressive, and the Taliban didn’t embrace technology the way Iraqi insurgents did. They were two different wars. But our trainers took a doctrine-based, cookie-cutter approach, and trained us as if those two very different combat environments were interchangeable. After so many years of both wars, they should have known better. And we should have benefitted from their knowledge, rather than feeling like we hadn’t been properly prepared.

Several years ago, after my Iraq deployment, I attended a National Guard Cavalry Scout course. Almost the entire curriculum was based on Cold War threats. We spent hours identifying “friendly” armored vehicles, some of which are used by our enemies, and “enemy” vehicles, some of which are used by allies. There was – literally – no IED training, although IEDs were the biggest threat to American troops at that time. The closest thing to it was “booby trap awareness”, part of which was a slide presentation that included pictures of Vietnam’s punji stake traps. Little to none of the class pertained to the War on Terror. And some of the students had actually been brought back from their deployed units in Iraq just to attend the class.

During the course, two visitors came from Fort Knox to ensure the course complied with training doctrine. Prior to their arrival, one instructor told us, “There will be no training when they’re here. We’re going to stand up here and read the class curriculum script word for word, in exactly the time allotted.” We students thought that was ridiculous, but were assured the visitors knew the subject matter intimately and had set the course up the best way possible. I met the visitors later. One had been an infantryman in Vietnam, the other was a female who had never served in the military. Neither had firsthand knowledge of current threats or either country we were fighting in at the time.

Last year I attended a training course for senior NCOs. During the course we studied hypothetical problems, based on actual incidents in Afghanistan. One problem was how to capture a local Taliban commander. This commander was known to move between his home and a mosque. So how could we determine when he was either at home or the mosque, and capture him?

One group of students, who had served on staffs overseas, came up with a perfect solution: put infantry patrols around the commander’s home and the mosque until they spotted him. Then call in Special Forces. Simple.

I’m no SF guy or tactical genius, but I spent a lot of time outside the wire and know a little about capturing high value targets. I knew that the patrols would do nothing but scare the commander off. The Taliban network of informants would notify him, he’d lay up somewhere else and fight on. To me and a couple of other students, the group’s proposed solution was worse than ridiculous; it was guaranteed to fail, and would likely get a bunch of infantry hurt or killed. And nobody had to be an Afghanistan expert to see the plan’s flaws. That stupid idea wouldn’t work against a wanted fugitive here in Texas.

The plan got an A for the group. The group’s plan didn’t violate doctrine. The instructors were dedicated, intelligent and had almost all been deployed on staffs. They didn’t see the plan’s obvious shortcomings because they didn’t have targeting experience themselves; they could only assess whether or not the plan checked the doctrinal blocks required for a high grade. The Army hadn’t ensured that our soldiers, and especially our teachers, understand the reality of today’s battlefield.

After a decade of war, we shouldn’t have to relearn lessons with blood. We shouldn’t have trainers who don’t know basic truths about current battlefields. We shouldn’t have a training system based on wars long past, that requires our troops to learn current threats through blood and loss.

Outdated, irrelevant doctrine is the reason my old tank unit was still training to counter Soviet tactics in the late 90’s, a decade after the Soviet Union collapsed and years after we saw the new face of war in Mogadishu. It’s the reason one of our armor lieutenants, when I asked why we weren’t being trained to counter sniper threats in urban areas, confidently (and unrealistically) answered, “Snipers are no problem. All we have to do is give the command ‘gunner, sabot, sniper’ and take him out.” Doctrine is the reason I arrived in Afghanistan trained to interrogate Soviet generals, but not trained to handle Afghan insurgents. Doctrine is the reason instructors said to me, “We know this is stupid. We know it’s not realistic. But we don’t have a choice. We have to train you this way, or get shut down.”

At the end of the previously mentioned training course last year, we had a large and complex final exercise. Many different battlefield activities had to be coordinated. One of those activities has been conducted daily for over ten years in Afghanistan (I won’t get too specific about it here). In Afghanistan, this activity works and is the only realistic way to do it. It’s an accepted fact of life there.

But this activity violates doctrine. So in the training exercise we had to pretend we couldn’t conduct this activity, and ignore a significant factor in mission planning and analysis. The instructors knew it was ridiculous. They knew we weren’t getting the exercise’s full value. They met with those of us who had operational experience and searched for a way to implement reality into the training. But we hit a wall; doctrine prevented us from training for reality. The very thing that was supposed to ensure proper preparation for war, actually prevented proper preparation for war.

I don’t know enough about the creation of training doctrine to know how to change it. I do know, from training and operational experience, that it isn’t being changed fast enough to keep up with the real world. We’re fighting an enemy that uses no doctrine; they do whatever works, when it works. The training and operational methods we adopt must counter that adaptability.

We serve in the greatest Army the world has ever known. Our officers and NCOs have more combat experience than some soldiers had at the conclusion of World War II. There is no reason our training doctrine can’t reflect what our troops have gained through hard experience. There’s no reason the phrase “It’s a TRADOC school” must be a euphemism for “This school sucks and you won’t learn anything.” Our soldiers, in this war and the next ones sure to come, deserve better.


12 Responses to “The failure of Army doctrine”

  1. 1 Travis

    And this is one more reason why we can’t win in the Stan. This is one more reason why if the SHTF here, and we found ourselves spilling blood on our own soil again, We the People would win.

    “The greatest Army in the world” is just like ‘The greatest nation on earth’. Yeah, it meant something once, but it doesn’t mean shit anymore. :-/

  2. I disagree on almost all of your points.

    Soldiers win at the tactical level in Afghanistan. The failure there, in my opinion, is in the nation-building mission. That has nothing to do with either doctrine or the troops’ performance.

    My essay is about a systemic training failure at a certain level. At the tactical level, our troops are trained very well. When they arrive in country they don’t use irrelevant, doctrine-based training to guide their actions. They do what soldiers in many armies have done, and take the advice to “forget everything you learned in the schoolhouse”. The best training occurs at the unit level, and is run by soldiers with actual experience downrange.

    I and my soldiers didn’t arrive in country and think the war would be like the schoolhouse. We knew it would be different, and we learned what to expect from veterans. The problem was wasted training opportunities, not with troops expecting Afghanistan to be like the Cold War.

    If we had a second civil war, “We the People” would win because our troops are part of We the People. American troops don’t want to fight American people, period. It’s fair to say that we soldiers and police don’t think the American people would be pushovers in a fight, and we don’t want them to be. If the US military was ordered to fight American citizens, we’d justifiably see mass mutinies. Anyone who thinks our troops will eagerly fight Americans is fantasizing.

    On the other hand, those who have no military experience or no real training but think possession of an AR-15 makes them a guerilla warrior would be in for a shock as well. Even if the Afghanistan War ended today, we’d still have battle-hardened troops serving for the next 20 years. Those men wouldn’t be pushovers either. Those who fantasize about a 2nd American Revolution probably don’t know what they’re asking for.

    NOBODY should hope for war between Americans. America is the greatest country in the world, with the greatest army ever known. As both a proud American and proud soldier, those statements still mean something to me. Even with all the rhetoric and current political conflict, Americans with opposing political views aren’t massacring each other in the streets. Nobody should want them to. This isn’t Somalia, in this country we talk our differences out.

  3. 3 spemack

    I had a bit of a gut check when I went through Ft. Knox and was trained how to fight a Russian Mobile Army Group coming through the Fulda Gap from the safety of my Bradley.

    As a political science major, I find it boggling how after every war the U.S. miilitary has ever been in, shortly after victory is achieved, it seems like the entire military does a data dump and deletes the lessons won.

    • I remember hearing that crap for years. “First you will see a BMP and two BRDMs. That is the Forward Security Element. Then you will see a T-72 and three BTRs. That is the Reconaissance Element. Then you will see [yada yada what the f**k ever].” This was years after the Soviet Union fell apart, and they never managed to follow their own doctrine worth a damn anyway. When I asked, “What about operating with tanks in urban areas?” the answer often was, “That’ll never happen.”

  4. 5 RandyGC

    Put’s me in mind of a supposed Soviet General Staff quote used at Air Ground Operations School in the 80’s: “The reason it is so hard to plan against the American military is that they neither read their doctrine, nor feel any obligation to follow it”.

    When I went through the basic SIGINT Officers course, the old school (literally) NCO instructors broke each Air Training Command approved course into 2 parts. The first half to teach us to pass the ATC approved test, the second half teaching us what we needed to know when we hit the field. It wasn’t until much later I realized what a career risk they were taking.

    The more things change…

    • Wow. It sucks that teaching reality puts an instructor’s career at risk.

      In the Cav Scout course I wrote about, there was a mistake in the armored vehicle slides. An M1 tank was identified as an M1A1. About 60% of my class was tankers like me who had been dragged kicking and screaming from our beloved tanks (the Texas Guard had gotten rid of all its tanks while I was in Iraq). We knew the tank was misidentified. But we had to say an M1 was an M1A1, because that’s what Ft Knox said it was. And if we correctly ID’d it, it would be wrong on paper, and any misidentification of an American vehicle was an automatic failure for the test. If you failed the test twice you were kicked out of the course. One of my friends refused to inoorrectly ID the tank on the test, and almost got kicked out. No instructors were willing to buck that one.

  5. “235 years of tradition, untroubled by experience or intelligence” seems to always apply, to all the services.

    In Vietnam, the only prep schools worth a $#!^ were run in-country, by the divisions/units deploying troops. One of the good things about Iraq/Afghanistan is not piecemealing troops in one at a time. One of the downsides is pulling out the entire unit that knows the area, and letting the replacements re-invent the wheel, every effing time.

    Hadji and Abdul, meanwhile, are deployed just like Charlie was, until he wins or dies.

    This is yet another ingredient in the recipe for our failure, and their success, despite not being bested tactically. You can’t fight a war of attrition with under 2 million troops, in countries with 30 or 60 million people who vary from atagonisitc to apathetic about your efforts. Unless you’re on the side opposite the troops.

    And our troops will always fail at nation-building, because American troops only built one nation ever, and that one was in 1783, after they mustered out. They also had a great leg up that time from the supporting cast.

    We send American troops to destroy nations, not build them. Yes, they have a secondary capability to dig wells, build buildings, etc. But that work should be done by civilians, ideally from the host nation, because that’s who’s going to have to maintain it when we leave.

    If a country is safe enough to deploy Meals On Wheels, we shouldn’t have troops there. If it’s not, the ones we do have should be waging a war to make it safe.

    Look up the infrastructure projects completed from 1783-1960, inclusive, and tell me which time before we were building playgrounds instead of trenches, or stringing power lines instead of barbed war.

    Then compare the number of times from 1960-2013 we’ve tried it the other way around, and let me know the box score for those endeavors.

    There’s one other thing you’re overlooking, at least for the moment. Once we’re out, doctrine will, as combat experience trickles up, start to reflect the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus insuring that the future Army will be fully prepared to conquer Iraq or Aghanistan next time. Except we won’t be in Iraq or Afghanistan next time. We’ll be somewhere else, where little if any of those lessons apply, and we’ll pay in fresh blood to learn yet again that the only doctrine that matters is to cram-study before the actual deployment, and learn fast or die after you get there. Pretty much exactly as we’ve done in every war for 235+ years.

    The memorable drill sergeant phrase “It’s easy to be hard, but hard to be smart” comes to mind once again.

    • I agree with everything but the last paragraph. It seems to me that the Army is resistant to making Iraq/Afghanistan tactics into doctrine. We keep trying to shift back to a Cold War mentality, as if the current wars are a sideshow. I’m reminded of the Brit general who said at the end of WW1, “Now we can get back to real soldiering”.

      • I believe you, but I’m taking a longer view.
        It took 25 years for guys like Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf to climb from VN field duty to the top ranks.Some of Desert Storm was doctrine from the manual, and a lot was lessons learned from 1968.

        In the short term, someone will want to pretend SWAsia never happened.
        But the ticket punching that matters was done by guys who were there, like you, and they’ll remember, and bide their time until they get to make policy and conduct training.

        Look at pics of the M-113 up-armor kits from 1969, and compare them to what we did with HMMWVs and Strykers in 2003. Or how fast the old M-14s came out of storage stocks when the M16/M-14 showed it’s problems with longer ranges and heavier cover. And, unfortunately, the idea of trying to win an insurgency with undermanned isolated garrisons in secure bases. Then tell me someone, somewhere, isn’t reliving 1969, right this minute. The only step they missed was bombing the Ho Chi Abdul trail in Pakistan, and that’s almost solely due to Pakistan having a few nukes, or we’d have been doing it too. Which, I think, is why we can look forward to an eventual helo lift from the Kabul embassy at some future date.

        Vietnam isn’t written into doctrine, but history, even in conflict, rhymes.
        Artillery duels and trench warfare started in 1865 at Richmond, not at Verdun. Even though the lessons now may not be written down in the manuals of tomorrow, they’re in some guys’ blood, and today’s privates are the Sgt. Majors of 2030.

        Unless we finally get jetpacks and laser rifles.

        BTW, the Brits tactics were, unfortunately, honed by multiple decades of fighting in every country BUT Europe prior to WWI, and nearly always against people without guns. Which explains their tremendous foresight in leading massed charges against German machineguns and artillery until they ran out of infantry. That’s what happens when you keep fighting the last war. We, on the other hand, ahd been trying British “real soldiering” against guys WITH guns back in 1861-1865. After Antietam, Gettysburg, etc., we mostly lost interest in the doctrinal “hey-diddle-diddle, straight up the middle” approach. And our guys in WWI ignored things like flanks and support, and seemed to rather prefer finding the enemy and slashing his throat until they were all dead or surrendered, more like our own Indian Wars, which their classic tactical doctrine didn’t prepare them for very well.

        Like dancing, war is a dance you want to lead, unless you like moving backwards a lot.

  6. 10 Josh

    Totally agree when I was in basic I kept getting the feeling I was gonna get deployed to West Germany to fight the Soviets.

  7. 11 JimP

    re: “So some civilians have an unrealistic view of the war.”

    Due to the fact that our .mil is smaller now in relation to our population than EVER in the history of our nation, I would daresay that 90+% of the population have an unrealistic view of the war. For most of them, they have only second-hand information at best, and most of that is from relatives who served decades ago.

    It was almost ten years ago that the writing was on the wall in Fallujah: “America is not at war. The Marines are at war. America is at the mall.” I agree with this sentiement now more than ever.

    Which makes me wonder if the .mil would in fact side with We The People ……

    It may be similar to the way I feel as a volunteer EMT, out on my own time, frustrating Darwin by saving what are many times lazy, stupid people from the results of their poor life choices …… because I think I should help when I can ……

    re: ” We shouldn’t have a training system based on wars long past, that requires our troops to learn current threats through blood and loss.”

    There is indeed nothing new under the sun: Nearly every Military with any tradition at all has always trained for the Last war, and not the Next.

    It is the Nature of the Beast, because those with experience move up the bureaucracy to become those that define the training doctrine, and have invested their careers in developing that doctrine. That’s quite a lot of Bureaucratic Inertia to overcome……. not to mention the Logistical Inertia of the Organization …..

    I’ve read somewhere that you can tell the point where “The Oranization” takes on more importance than said Organization’s Purpose in Life by finding the point where “process” becomes more important than “results”. I often think our .mil has passed that point ……. maybe the country has, as well ;” (

    • I said something to a Lt Col once: “It seems to me that we’re sacrificing the mission to save the process.” I guess I was right.

      I know we’re always a war behind in doctrine, but the last war was Desert Storm. We could at least have trained for that war, instead of VN or the Cold War.

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